A God Conspiracy

by Caroline Fairless

Collaboration is the God word for me. I don’t know that I actually discerned it. More like it was hurled at me, rained down upon me, bubbled up from the ground under my feet, wrapped around me, before and behind me. There is nowhere to go from this word.

A workshop is cancelled for insufficient registration.

It’s the first time this has happened to us, and I have to ask why. I turn to the people who know about these things, and their responses are reassuring. May scheduling. Mother’s Day. Spring weather. Not enough lead time. Not enough publicity. Assuming that electronic announcements will suffice, when in truth they don’t.

The answers are reassuring. It’s not really that people hate us and the work that we do…right? So just reschedule and chalk it up to bad timing.

Or…use it as an occasion for reflection. Let the experience carry me into those murky, sometimes terrifying areas of discernment that I’ve been avoiding.

For the past several years I have been—and I borrow this expression from my husband’s daughter Rebecca—the boss of me. I like it that way. I have founded an organization, Children at Worship, which equips churches to include children and youth as full participants in regular worship. I am the director. Jim works with me and picks up the pieces that I cannot do well, not only the music but the directives that require someone with a booming voice who’s not afraid to use it to say, “Can we re-gather now?” Or, “This is how you use this resource.”Or, “I need a volunteer.” Or, “This is how we’re going to stage this reading.”

And I look with astonishment as my husband begins to take on roles that I haven’t assigned him. I am dumbfounded that new acquaintances look to him as one with equal authority. Don’t they know I started the whole thing?

It’s hard to admit these things to myself. Harder still to say them out loud, I suppose. But within the space of two hours, a workshop is cancelled, and the invitation is here to write about discernment. Odd, isn’t it, that the invitation comes at the exact time I would rather crawl under my covers and hide?

This is what I know. If Children at Worship is to grow as an organization…if we are to be able to work at a depth that will produce real change in the way communities build themselves…if we are to be instrumental in the design of worship that serves the entirety of the community, then we have to break this thing open—develop a board of directors, train new leaders, release control.

I call them God conspiracies. A workshop is cancelled. A contract with LeaderResources, outlining possibilities for a collaborative partnership, lies buried on my desk. An invitation comes to write an article. And at an evening meeting, a vestry member introduces himself to us as a systems analyst, and I make the glib comment, “If ever a system need analyzing….”

When I call him to inform him of the cancelled workshop, I remind him of his introduction and my response. He says, “Well, it seems to me we have the gift of a day. How about we spend it together?”

A God conspiracy. By the end of the day, we have a pretty clear sense of what we need to do to break open this organization, and we have scheduled the next all-day appointment. The last words our new friend utters to me as he leaves the house, “You know, Caroline, this will radically change the way you spend your time.”

The contract with LeaderResources is still on my desk, but I move it a little closer to the top of the pile. My stomach is twisted in remarkable ways, because I know this is the beginning of the end of my being the boss of me.

Collaboration is the God word for me. I don’t know that I actually discerned it. More like it was hurled at me, rained down upon me, bubbled up from the ground under my feet, wrapped around me, before and behind me. There is nowhere to go from this word.

A workshop is cancelled, such a simple thing. And I am thrust upon a path of collaboration

that is as uncomfortable and altogether as terrifying as anything I’ve known. Have you ever heard preachers make a sometimes joking, most times serious claim that we preach pretty much what we ourselves need to hear? I have been preaching about collaborative efforts, about corporate (as opposed to personal) worship. “We can no longer design our worship on the basis of what people like and don’t like.…” I say this in an authoritative way and people nod their heads.

Every piece of the teachings of Children at Worship has to do with the question, “What can we design that serves the entire worshipping community including young people? What could corporate worship look like if we could only release the habits and patterns that we—with the narrowest of vision—have named ’the Tradition’?”

So now I hear God laughing. “That’s right, Caroline. There is truth in what you teach. My God words for you are: collaboration, partnership, richness, abundance. Micromanagement is out! Control…out!”

How do we hear the call of God? In as many different ways as there are people, I suppose. God seems to call me into my greatest areas of resistance. And the learning is painful indeed, because I am an obstinate person with an astonishing capacity to dig in my heels.

As varied as are the ways in which God calls us, however, I imagine we share many responses in common. Fear is perhaps the greatest. Many, if not most issues, such as control, power, denial, and others you can name, seem to reduce to fear. Fear is, I think, both a rational and logistical issue, and a deeply spiritual issue. It’s a faith issue. To be afraid in the spirit is a common enough thing, but to respond in fear is to falter in our trust.

I am deeply afraid to let go of the management of this organization. I am afraid it will no longer look like I envision it. I am afraid to train new people. I am afraid they won’t present like I do. I am afraid to develop a working board of directors. I am afraid they will take away my power.

I am afraid to grow. I am afraid to let things get out of my control. I am afraid, even, to talk about it, because then you will know.

Fear is a faith issue. How easy it is for me to say to you, “Just let go. The vision, the work, the possibilities will multiply. You will know richness beyond measure. Abundance beyond your wildest imaginings.” That’s the voice God has given me, and I trust it. I trust it until I have to turn it on myself. So I don’t turn it on me. I bury the contract with LeaderResources at the bottom of the pile. I avoid my own God voice for a very long time.

And then one day a workshop is cancelled for insufficient registration. Jim and I have a free day, one that we spend with people who want to help us organize ourselves. An invitation comes to write an article on the discernment of God’s calls to the spirit. And I move a contract from the middle of the pile to the top.

Caroline Fairless is director of Children at Worship—Congregations in Bloom. An Episcopal priest and the author of Confessions of a Fake Priest (Church Publishing, 2001), she lives in Lexington Park, Maryland, Diocese of Washington, D.C.

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